Wetlands and Water

[Note: The following was first published in the August 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

During the recent discussions about returning catch-and-keep fishing to some of our Alberta lakes, the issues of loss of habitat and water quality came up. Although the Alberta government likes to blame its catch-and-release policy on too many anglers chasing too few fish, in reality loss of habitat plays as big or bigger a role.

Wabamun wetland

Wetlands are complex plant and animal communities that clean water and provide many other environmental services. A wetland’s riparian and emergent vegetation removes nutrients from water before it is released to a lake or stream.

In lakes and streams habitat and water quality go hand-in-hand. If habitat is poor, chances are the water quality is also poor in terms of increased nutrients (e.g., phosphorus, nitrogen), cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and low oxygen, etc. The water quality of a lake is largely determined by the quality of the water entering that lake. If that water passes over disturbed land, it will carry silt and dissolved nutrients into the lake, silting-in fish habitat and increasing the lake water’s nutrient load. On the other hand, if the water passes through well-vegetated areas, where sediment is filtered out and the plants take up nutrients, less sediment and nutrients enter the lake.

However, if the overland water enters a wetland prior to going to a stream or lake, the quality of the water entering that water body can very much improve. So, what are wetlands? According to Wetlands Alberta (www.wetlandsalberta.ca), “Wetlands are low-lying areas of land covered by water long enough to support aquatic plants and wildlife for part of their life cycle.” Their diverse communities of plants and animals provide many services to the environment that includes water filtration and storage, ground water recharging, carbon sequestration, and habitat for a host of plants and wildlife species that contribute to the biodiversity of a landscape.

wetland fill

A landholder fills and blocks a wetland on crown land to build a road to the lakeshore.

The problem is that over the decades many wetlands have been drained and covered over to increase agricultural production or make way for development. Many people considered wetlands to be “wastelands” that should be drained and put into “useful service,” not realizing the services the wetlands were already providing. This has been especially true around our recreational lakes, where cottage and other development have destroyed or seriously impaired many wetlands. As we’ve learned the limits of our resources, the value of wetlands is finally being factored into decisions about land use. Alberta’s Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Public Lands Act protect wetlands on both public and private land. If someone wishes to drain or otherwise alter a wetland, they must contact the appropriate authorities. The problem has been that many landholders don’t realize their responsibility and have altered their wetlands (or sometimes crown wetlands) without obtaining the required approvals. Although the violator might be charged, the damage is done.

Wetlands Alberta (a partnership of Alberta Environment and Parks, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Partnership) recognizes five types of wetlands divided into two broad classifications: peatlands and non-peatlands. Peatlands are found most often in northern Alberta and parts of the parkland, foothills and mountains. Non-peatlands are found mostly in the prairies and parkland regions.

About 20% of the surface area of Alberta is covered by wetlands and over 90% of these are peatlands. Peat is partially decomposed organic vegetation whose decomposition has slowed or stopped because of lack of oxygen. As a result, the peat accumulates over the years. Many peatlands have existed for thousands of years and are one of the most important carbon sinks, where carbon is stored and not released back into the atmosphere.

Bogs are peat-covered wetlands where the surface water is acidic as a result of decaying plant material and poor drainage. Shrubs and sphagnum mosses are the main vegetation types overlying the peat. However, some bogs may support trees, such as black spruce and tamarack.

Fens are peatlands fed by flowing ground water. The water is basic (high pH) as opposed to the acid conditions found in bogs. Fen vegetation tends to be dominated by sedges but may also include trees and shrubs.

Potholes, ponds and standing water along rivers and lakeshores are classified as Shallow Open-water Ponds. These are usually small bodies of standing or flowing water, ringed with cattails and other emergent vegetation. Some may represent the stage of a lake transforming into a marsh.

Marshes are wetlands that are permanently or occasionally covered by slow moving or standing water. Rich in nutrients, marshes support a variety of cattails, rushes, reeds and sedges because water remains in the root zone of these plants most of the growing season.

Found in both peatlands and non-peatlands, swamps are low-lying pieces of land that are flooded either seasonally or for long periods of time and contain shrubs and trees that prefer moist conditions. They are nutrient rich and productive in terms of supporting many plant and animal species.

Value of Wetlands to Lakes and Streams
Clean water is important for fish, wildlife and people. Wetlands clean water by slowing it down, allowing silt and other suspended solids to drop out, and by filtering it—passing the water through a filter of mosses, peat, soil and plant roots. The roots extract nutrients from the water.

Wetlands reduce the effects of drought by storing water and providing sources of water for wildlife and livestock. They also recharge groundwater by passing some of the stored water into aquifers. By storing runoff water and slowly releasing it, wetlands reduce the effects of flooding.

Anyone who has ever visited a wetland will realize their value in providing habitats for a variety of wildlife, from beavers, muskrats, waterfowl and perching birds to frogs, toads, fish and insects, just to name a few. Wetland communities are diverse and complex. Many other animals from the surrounding uplands frequent wetlands to find food, water, and relief from the summer heat, including moose, deer, foxes, weasels and mink.

OHV damage to wetland

Damage to wetlands comes in many forms. Here an off-highway vehicle damaged a wetland protecting Wabamun Lake.

As in the forests and fields that surround them, wetland vegetation sequesters carbon by taking carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon in the plants and eventually in the soil and peat. This valuable service helps slow global warming and climate change. Indeed, our warming climate will be the biggest threat to the viability of our lakes and streams over the next decades.

Wetland Policy
In 2012 the Alberta government released its Wetland Policy (www.wetlandpolicy.ca) in which the government outlined the importance of protecting wetlands and how that should be accomplished. Not an easy task given the various demands for resources and development on both crown and private lands, and the various jurisdictions that are involved in regulating land development. As with all policies and legislation, the Wetland Policy is not much good unless it’s acted upon and enforced.

At the Wabamun Watershed Management Council, we’ve seen several examples of altered or abused wetlands around Wabamun Lake. Most of these are the result of people not knowing the rules and the consequences of the damage they do. But why don’t they know? Mainly because our provincial and municipal governments fail to inform people of these rules, especially when they apply for permits to build or clear land. Many people still believe wetlands are wastelands and that they should be filled in, especially on their own land. However, land ownership comes with certain responsibilities, including being a steward of that land and ensuring the quality of the water that passes through it.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Generations and Attitudes

[Note: The following was first published in the July 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

We’ve all heard the names used to identify different generations, such as “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials.” Giving names to generations is a convenient way for sociologists and demographers to roughly describe groups of people of similar ages, cultures and life experiences. Different generations have different values and attitudes and sometimes they come into conflict.

WWII Generation
My parents were born in the early 1910s in what demographers now call the WWII Generation (born roughly from 1900 to the mid 1920s). This generation survived the Great Depression and provided the bulk of people who fought in the Second World War or who contributed to that war effort.

2006-06 Meredith-Rainbow-MaligneLk

Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration for earlier generations.

My dad grew up in a rural farming community. He learned to fish and hunt when those activities were considered just another way to get food on the table. He wasn’t much of a hunter but fishing was his passion. My mother also grew up in a rural community. She didn’t fish or hunt but appreciated the wild fish and game that was brought to the table. The two met as schoolteachers during the Depression and knew they were lucky to have jobs.

Silent Generation
My brother came along in the generation that followed: the Silent Generation (born mid 1920s to mid 1940s). It’s called the Silent Generation because members, in general, concentrated on their careers and made few waves in terms of social activism, unlike the generation that followed. They saw their parents struggle in the Depression and war years and understood the value of having and keeping a job.

Demographers admit these names and descriptions are broad generalizations that often don’t fit particular individuals. For example, my brother (now deceased) never did concentrate on a single career for any significant length of time. He moved from job to job as his interests changed.

I was born 10 years after my brother, after the end of World War II. That places me on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation (born mid 1940s to mid 1960s), so called because we were large in number as a result of being born in unprecedented post-war prosperity. Jobs were plentiful for our parents and if we were middle class or better we had access to much material wealth and good educations. We also benefited from the social programs that governments developed as a result of the Depression, such as employment insurance, workers’ compensation and government pensions. However, many of us also saw the inequities in society and became social activists, questioning many of the things our parents believed. It was the boomers who spearheaded the start of the environmental movement.

Like my brother, I didn’t conform to many of my generation’s so-called norms, although I did take full advantage of the educational opportunities available. While I saw a lot of social activism on college campuses and gave moral support to some of it, I did not take part in the activism.

Both my brother and I inherited our father’s passion for fishing. Some of my best memories of that time involve fishing with my brother and dad on a lake or the ocean. Although we didn’t have to fish or hunt to feed our family, it was understood that any fish caught and kept was to be eaten. Catching fish just to release them was not a consideration.

By this time our family had moved to the city. My dad ensured we each went into the Boy Scouts where we would get outdoors and learn some life skills and self-reliance. In those days, the Scouts were very outdoors oriented. Our local troop camped regularly, where we learned woodcraft, orienteering, hiking and canoeing.

Along his way my brother developed an interest in hunting. He passed that interest on to me and encouraged me to take a hunter training and firearms course.

Gen X
We boomers gave rise to the next generation, what demographers now call Generation X (born mid 1960s to early 1980s). That creative name was assigned because for many years demographers didn’t know how to describe this generation and X in science refers to an unknown. Gen X is a lot smaller in number than the Boomers because the birth control pill allowed more boomer women to pursue careers, postpone child bearing and have fewer children. These children were often left on their own after school before their parents came home from work, and longer during the summers, causing them not to get as much adult supervision as previous generations.


Fishing and hunting opportunities require advocates willing to step up and protect wild places.

Again, these are broad generalizations. But Gen Xers did not receive the outdoor experiences previous generations did. First, many boomer families moved to cities for employment. Second, often both parents worked and there was less time for getting outside the cities. As a result, the proportion of the population that bought hunting and fishing licences kept dropping. As well, our growing human population placed more demands on resources. To compensate, governments introduced the concept of catch-and-release fishing, as well as lotteries for hunting licences. Gen X was the first to grow up during the rapid technological advances we see today. They accepted home computers and the Internet as part of life more readily than many Boomers.

Millennials and Generation Z
The Millennials (or Generation Y, born early 1980s to mid 1990s) are distinguished from Gen X mainly by their complete emersion—almost from birth—in digital technology, accepting smart phones, tablets, Wi-Fi, social media and the instant gratification they provide. Generation Z (born mid 1990s to mid 2010s) is the last generation described to date. Because its characteristics are still being defined, this generation is mainly noted for being the largest in our North American population, outnumbering Boomers. Both these generations have less time to connect with the natural world than did their elders.

Each of these six generations is distinguished from the previous one by the ever-increasing pace of social change their members have experienced. What used to work for one group in terms of interacting with people, finding a job or having enough time to participate in outdoor activities might no longer work for the next group.

It’s easy for older generations to criticize younger ones for not having the same values or not helping out. I’ve sat in meetings of non-profit organizations and heard people complain about the lack of young people stepping up to participate, and I have to admit I’ve sometimes joined that chorus. But is it fair? Maybe the organizations need to be communicating better with the people they want to step up.

bha-logoA good example is what happened with the formation of the Alberta Chapter of the Backcountry Hunter and Anglers. At the organizing meetings I was impressed with the number of young, keen and motivated people that showed up to take leadership roles and help make a difference for Alberta’s wild places. Many had been hunting and fishing for much of their lives but had not bothered to join the Alberta Fish and Game Association. When I asked why, they stated they didn’t feel the AFGA represented their values with regard to wild places. They felt the government needed to hear from hunters and anglers who appreciate the solemnity of a true wilderness experience. Perhaps getting people to step up begins with asking the right questions.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?

Guest Blog: Alberta Environment and Parks is requesting public input into its woodland caribou range planning efforts. The deadline for input is July 27, 2017, but AEP will accept comments about specific plans after that date. In the following essay biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) questions the whole premise of the exercise and suggests a relatively simple solution that would save a lot of money, time and effort, and allow Alberta to get on with business. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: The Inequity of “Balance”, Tracks and Spur, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

“A Modest Proposal” for Alberta’s Caribou?
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

Caribou populations are cratering in Alberta; this is evident even to the congenitally imperceptive amongst us. As we prevaricate, mumble, delay and equivocate, a day of reckoning approaches, morally, legally and financially. What do we do about caribou?

Alberta has a natural resources inventory, bequeathed to us from the federal government under the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement of 1930. Among other things this transfer included fish, wildlife, native plants and their habitats. I suppose it was implicit in the agreement we, as a province, would look after these natural resource treasures.

Clear cut

If we are not willing to protect caribou habitat, why are we bothering to protect caribou?

Subsequent agreements committed the province to protect and maintain biodiversity (i.e. National Wildlife Policy, 1990; United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, 1992; Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, 1995; Alberta’s Commitment to Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management, 1999; Responsible Actions, 2009). The federal government has been clear about these responsibilities at the same time as being complicit in enjoying rents, royalties and taxes from resource exploitation.

Every bureaucracy has a process for acquiring things and then for writing things off when an inventory item is outdated, redundant, broken or lost. It keeps things in balance to have such a system, an accounting of sorts.

In hundreds of bathrooms, outdoor privies and in many offices hangs a plaque with the pithy little saying: “The job isn’t finished until the paperwork is done.” Indeed! When we have failed to care for our inventory of biodiversity, as evidenced by declines and losses of caribou, grizzly bears, bull trout, cutthroat trout, Arctic grayling, Athabasca rainbow trout, sage grouse and a host of others, the paper work is incomplete.

Are we at a point for caribou where we have run them out of options since we can’t, or won’t entertain a change in our business as usual mentality? Maybe it’s time to own up to the reality that we are unable to maintain caribou and finalize the paperwork.

A Modest Proposal for preventing caribou from being a burden on industry, corporations and the government, and for making their habitat more financially beneficial to the public.

Sometimes we can have our cake and eat it too, but we cannot, it seems, have caribou and logging, oil and gas, roads and other developments in the same time and space. So let’s just say it—cash trumps caribou. If we recognize and endorse the compulsive overvaluation of one segment of the economy over another, the undervalued segment (i.e., caribou) will diminish and disappear.


Is it time to admit that cash trumps caribou?

Wouldn’t it be simpler and more honest just to say, openly and categorically—caribou stand in the way of progress? They will have to join the bison herds, swift fox, greater prairie chicken, plains grizzly, plus tracts of native prairie and aspen parkland. We must maintain the economic engines that give us our good life, even if it is an unexamined one.

As a competent bureaucracy the Alberta government has forms for nearly everything, included the FIN 37. A FIN 37 allows one to write off an inventory item, squaring the books. So, let’s get on with finalizing the paperwork on caribou, completing the “write-off” forms, paving the way for expanded economic activity in caribou range.

Write-off forms can be quite simple to complete. A FIN 37 needs only the following information:

When inventory was acquired: Caribou were acquired, from the Federal government, in the Natural Resources Transfer Act (Alberta) of 1930. Described as An Act respecting the transfer of the natural resources of Alberta,” presumably the act included caribou, along with oil, gas, minerals, timber and the like.

How many received: The population numbers are unknown, but caribou were common from the US border to the Northwest Territory border, with the exception of the grassland and the aspen parkland.

Description: Caribou are medium sized members of the deer family, both sexes have antlers and have boreal and mountain ecotypes.” Caribou are featured on our 25-cent piece and are closely related to reindeer, known by many children as the species that pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Reason for write-off: Economic interests supersede ecological values; cumulative effects make maintenance of existing herds expensive, complicated and onerous; we have already gone too far with development (and commitments to industry) and the prognosis is that caribou will disappear shortly; and, not enough people care about caribou to matter.

Following this information on the form, there needs to be a signature, probably from the premier of Alberta and a copy must be sent to the prime minister of Canada. The paper work is done and business can get on without another impediment.

Imagine the money we will save by not having to control wolves, fence in pregnant caribou cows, fly inventories to catalogue the demise, hold meetings to discuss how little we need to do (and are doing), restore the linear footprint of old seismic trails, eliminate restrictive speed limits on resource roads, and employ biologists who have no hope, under the current economic regime, of saving caribou.

Economic moralists will tell us that to mourn the loss of caribou is just nostalgia. They would have disappeared anyway. Our lives will not be diminished with their demise. Put up a monument, with an image of a caribou in bronze. We could have a little hand-wringing ceremony at the monument’s unveiling, where the champions of industry and government could wipe away a few false tears over the caribou’s demise. It might seem momentarily hypocritical but then we could get on with the important things of converting our landscapes and natural resources into tangible, fungible symbols of prosperity.

Now, lest you think I’m serious, Jonathan Swift wrote about a similar seemingly intractable problem in Ireland in a pamphlet in 1729 entitled A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as “A Modest Proposal”. In it Swift suggests the poverty stricken Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their surplus children as food for purchase by the richer class of society. He points out that this “will not be liable to the least objection.”

Of course the proposition to raise children to feed rich people is (and was) morally reprehensible. Swift’s use of satire was meant to focus on why such stark poverty, reducing people to situations of basic survival, existed in the Ireland of the day. Swift recognized the utility of satire is to rock people out of their complacency and to get them mad enough to do something about a dire situation.

It is the same for Albertans and caribou. We continue to be deluded that all our problems will have solutions—that our pace of development will continue and we can salvage some vestiges of biodiversity. The mantra is we can have it all and it is simply a wait for the technology that will allow us to erase our footprint. This is just cynical public relations to calm the environmentalists.

What does “Species at Risk” mean to a species at risk?
It might be helpful to think of species at risk designated as “threatened” or “endangered” in the same context as a fire alarm signalling an impending disaster. The difference between the two in Alberta is that when the alarm is sounded for a species we don’t send out the fire truck. Instead we begin a glacially slow, ponderously bureaucratic, unnecessarily methodical process of deciding if the fire is really burning, how bright the flames are, whether we agree the fire is significant and if putting out the fire might unduly impact economic development.

By the time we respond, if we do at all, the fire consuming a species in trouble has become a conflagration, with limited control ability. Onto the blaze we bravely pile status reports, recovery plans, management plans and the minutes from endless meetings with “affected” parties, few of whom speak in favor of the imperiled species. Rarely does any water materialize from these delaying tactics to quell the fire.

The recipe for the species recovery planning “cake” can be disheartening: Take a province and all that province means, with communities and caring people with compassion and a habit of helping one another—ignore all this, add too much money, crank up the economy, manage through ideology, ignore science, forget local interests, develop a slavish devotion to corporate interests—then shake, stir, and bake until ruined.

For caribou there is a forest of paper, starting in the late 1970s, on management plans, status reports, designations (finally as “threatened”), operating guidelines for industry, restoration planning, conservation strategies, and recovery plans; all overseen by government, multi-stakeholder committees and task forces; and aided by predation studies, multiple population inventories, linear feature assessments, radio telemetry providing tracking of populations, and other research studies too numerous to mention.

To give credit where credit may be due, few other species in Alberta have had so much attention lavished on them. However, in the terse, clinical language of the last status report, “caribou range is continuing to recede.”

Caribou Recovery Efforts—Action, Inertia or Foot-Dragging?
Aldo Leopold observed, “It is important that the inventory [of imperilled species] represent not merely a protest of those privileged to think, but an agreement of those empowered to act.” It would seem we have considerable talent in talking about the issue, but examples of action are harder to discern.

To lose the abundance of biodiversity in Alberta, within a century of our tenure, to the demands of the corporate world (and to disconnected shareholders) is comparable to gathering all the books from every library for shredding to relieve a temporary paper shortage.

A close examination of the situation with caribou shows a progressive extirpation of caribou from southwestern Alberta northward, over a 70-year timespan. Some of this extirpation is now lost to the collective memory. Where it is remembered, the loss of caribou is alternately blamed on wolves, sometimes on hunting. If hunting was an issue, the season for caribou ended in 1981 and most First Nations have voluntarily stopped harvest. These are the only levers available to provincial biologists and First Nations peoples to deal with the plight of caribou.

Rarely does it register that hunting and predation are proximate causes, and not the ultimate causes related to roading, industrial-scale logging, oil and gas exploration and development and sometimes fire.

A caribou is a survivor, adapted to deep snow with large, crescent shaped hooves that act as snowshoes. A caribou does not fear deep snow; with its large hooves and long legs it floats over the stuff. It subsists, overwinter, on both terrestrial and arboreal lichens, themselves a product of old-growth forests.

Lichens grow slowly and so lose the race to gain enough living space to other plants, except in old-growth, undisturbed forests. As the bulk of winter fuel for caribou, a diet of lichens seems like a poor choice, but who are we to argue with the millennia of evolution and adaptive strategies? Selecting lichens allows caribou to spatially separate themselves from other ungulates, like moose and deer, reduce competition and, more importantly, avoid predation from wolves.

Most important to caribou survival is space, a mechanism to constantly provide habitat choice but also predator avoidance.

Our development footprint is extensive, pervasive and growing in caribou habitat. As it grows, habitat for caribou shrinks. Caribou, like most wildlife can shift ranges; but with fewer and fewer choices, the options are limited. Linear disturbances (e.g. roads, pipelines, powerlines, and seismic trails) and logged areas reduce habitat effectiveness substantially as caribou avoid them and these features also allow predators, especially wolves, to make inroads to previously “safe” areas.

Some, like an industry spokesman, have castigated the victim with, “Caribou are too dumb to adapt to changing conditions.” It is the start of a disturbing trend with imperilled species—blame the victim. If cutthroat trout weren’t so close to rainbows genetically they wouldn’t be “threatened” now. If caribou evolved faster to keep up with our footprint and wolves they would be prospering instead of disappearing.

I wonder how well that spokesman would adapt if his clothes were taken away and was dropped into a landscape without wheels, central heating and grocery stores, armed with only sharp sticks.

Our management and mitigation mechanisms are, on balance, somewhat half-hearted, given the dismal prognosis for caribou. At best they are designed to buy time for caribou; conversely, they may result in a waste of time and opportunity to deal with the overarching issues.

Predation became a problem with the creation of human-caused landscape changes; it is a response to industrial roading and habitat shifts from logging that favor deer and moose. The shifts in habitat conditions, with more roads and a younger forest gives predators like wolves an unnatural advantage over caribou.

The confinement of pregnant caribou cows behind a predator proof fence is an attempt to allow better recruitment to the population. It smacks of a desperate move, confining wild critters in a zoo-like enclosure. Rather than facilitating recovery, it distances us from allowing caribou to regain a self-sustaining status throughout their range. Like many mitigation techniques, it fails to deal with the ultimate cause of caribou declines, habitat loss from land use. It is the application of a band-aid to the limb of an amputee.

To deal with increased wolf predation we have engaged in a draconian wolf control program. To some the wolf control program of poison, trapping and aerial gunning is cruel, unethical and ineffective. It puts provincial wildlife biologists in an intractable position, of trying to solve a problem that is, at its roots, economic, not biological. Sifting through the ocean with a fork to catch fish might be easier.

The dilemma is viewed as a population problem, when, in reality, it is a habitat problem. The issue isn’t just about a population goal at a point in time; it’s whether there is enough habitat to sustain a population that is large enough to be viable into the future. If we give up on conserving the forests where caribou live, we give up on caribou.

Solving the complex issues of habitat fragmentation, cumulative effects, climate change, carrying capacity, amount of remaining, intact old-growth forest and the space requirements of caribou may have more to do with saving caribou than the stop-gap measure of wolf control.

It comes down to an economic question: Of the billions, trillions or gazillions of dollars of potential wealth in natural gas, oil and bitumen, less so in timber, are we, as a civilized society willing to forgo, delay or reduce our expectations of short term financial return in favor of caribou and their habitat?

Natural gas, oil and bitumen are not a commodity, like potatoes, that will go bad if left in the ground. Past administrations, especially the Klein government stepped aside from interfering in the industry, letting them set the tone for the pace and extent of extraction. The current Notley government seems more inclined toward the original Lougheed model, of government setting the tone and tenor for industry. Always the visionary, the late Peter Lougheed called for a slow and measured rate of resource extraction, not the gold-rush mentality of the past few decades. Caribou might have appreciated a slower rate of incursion into their habitat.

For forest management, the policy of Forest Management Agreements—giving control of the forest to multi-nationals—has come back to haunt us, caribou being but one example. Logging is based on mill capacity, not the needs of caribou. Forests are a commodity and that commodity needs to be harvested before it goes bad. Old-growth forests with ancient trees festooned with lichens, essential caribou habitat, are just dimensional lumber temporarily standing.

A government biologist, in a moment of candor, remarked, “Logging doesn’t allow for suitable amounts and spatial distribution of appropriate age classes to permit long-term conservation.” In effect, caribou have lost and continue to lose the necessary large tracts of old-growth forest, carpeted with lichens and constituting the moat of space to reduce predation. The end-game, or, the end-of-the-game for caribou is the continuation of current industrial scale logging. Without an aggressive forest conservation strategy there is no caribou habitat and hence, no caribou.

Only three of Alberta’s identified herds of caribou are deemed “stable,” whatever the term means. Some have winked out of existence, even in our national parks. Most herds are plummeting, with population graphs that resemble children’s slides, all downhill. Herds are now largely isolated from one another on diminishing islands of habitat. Where we are at, given all of the work on population status, with most herds, is a very strong sense caribou are in a slow race to oblivion in Alberta. Maintaining the land use status quo means the extirpation of caribou, in a relatively short time frame.

Where does this leave caribou, or how fast will caribou leave us? It is a matter of will and choice. If caribou matter, if enough Albertans say caribou should continue to exist, then the path is clear. We will surrender some of the economic engine operating in the foothills and boreal forest, or at least delay the payback period. But, we need to decide, not simply delay, defray and drag out the decision. For too long, with so many species the answer was more study, more monitoring, more stop gap measures.

As Winston Churchill observed, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”

Alberta has to come clean because we can’t have it both ways, have our caribou and eat their habitat with industrial development too.

Choices for Caribou and a Test for Us?
The World’s Doomsday Clock is currently ticking at two and a half minutes to midnight, signalling our potential end in a blinding flash of nuclear explosions. Caribou in Alberta are closer yet to the chiming of midnight and the signal we have erased them and millennia of years of their existence.

John Steinbeck wrote the following and although he didn’t mention caribou they are implicit in his description:

We in the United States have done so much to destroy our own resources, our timber, our land, our fishes that we should be taken as a horrible example and our methods avoided by any government and people enlightened enough to envision a continuing economy. With our own resources we have been prodigal, and our country will not soon lose the scars of our grasping stupidity.

Northrup Frye made a similar observation, that Canada is a land of ruins. Harsh examination, but our history is a procession of leave takings. We find a place, use it up and move on. This is no more evident than is shown in an examination of biodiversity resources, both nationally and provincially. If we acknowledge our history, of prioritizing economic development and reflect on the cost of that choice, there is an alternate future to the modest proposal for caribou.

Caribou are like canaries with antlers. They are the flag ship species of the boreal forest and the northern foothills, serving as sentinels marking the changes brought about by the pace and expanding footprint of our economic aspirations.

Death is the name for a landscape or a creature ignored; the future existence of caribou is a test of our commitment to maintaining our biodiversity inventory. For the protection and recovery of caribou, hard but not impossible choices await.

Saving caribou is more than a political decision, one that corporate interests also have to make, and one in which we Albertans have to share. We are all responsible for caribou, through legislation, policy commitment and the ethics of responsible stewardship. No default to a FIN 37 is permissible.

We can neither agree to write off the species, either directly or through benign neglect any more than Jonathan Swift would have agreed to the implementation of his modest proposal. At the heart of this, we are the trustees of a living thing.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Note: Although the AEP deadline for comment on the caribou management process is July 27, 2017, the department is still taking input on specific plans. Go to Alberta’s Action on Caribou: Caribou Range Planning

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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Wabamun Lake Fishery Update

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It has been a while since I wrote a column about what is happening with the Wabamun Lake fishery. Wabamun is a very popular recreation lake located 70 km west of Edmonton. At one time it was one of the most productive fisheries in the province. My last column on the lake appeared in October of 2012 and was a general overview of the situation at that time. As many remember, the lake suffered a train derailment and catastrophic oil spill in 2005, and people were wondering how the fishery was doing as a result.

Wabamun commercial fishery

Not that long ago, Wabamun was one of the most productive commercial fisheries in the province.

In that column I reported that most mature fish had survived the spill but the lake whitefish population had taken a hit because the pollutants from the oil had affected the survivability of whitefish eggs. Although Alberta Health had found low levels of petroleum pollutants in the flesh of fish shortly after the spill, tests several months later confirmed those chemicals had not persisted and most fish were O.K. to consume. The one exception to consuming fish was the ongoing issue of mercury in older fish, especially pike. However, the mercury pollution is not related to the oil spill but comes from the air as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

Officers checking net

Officers checking commercial fishing nets on Wabamun Lake in 1982.

Although most fish could be eaten, Alberta Fish and Wildlife imposed a catch-and-release (C&R) regulation for all species in the lake in 2008 to allow fish stocks to recover. As a result, within a few years, anglers were catching trophy-size northern pike that normally are only found in northern fly-in lakes. This fostered the idea that perhaps Wabamun should be developed as a trophy pike fishery, unique to a lake so close to a major metropolitan area.

Walleye Restoration

As I related in 2012, the Alberta Government has long tried to reintroduce walleye to the lake. However, the introductions were not successful. This was most likely because the Wabamun power plant used the lake as its cooling pond since 1956, raising lake water temperature and causing walleye eggs to hatch too early in the spring for the fry to survive. The power plant ceased operations in 2010, so the government decided once again to introduce walleye in 2011. This introduction appears to have been successful, as there is evidence the walleye are spawning and the young are surviving. No further introductions have been made since 2014.

Were Walleye Native to Wabamun?
There is some debate whether walleye ever naturally occurred in Wabamun Lake. Several former government biologists, who at various times were fisheries managers of the lake, say walleye were never in the lake, referencing commercial fishing reports dating back to the 19th century that show no evidence of walleye ever being caught. On the other hand, current Wabamun fisheries biologist, Stephen Spencer, found a commercial fishing record dated 1912-13 that lists 18,000 lbs. (8200 kg) of pickerel (misnomer for walleye) being caught in that year. Nevertheless, the former managers point out that records for other years around that time do not corroborate this finding, and the 1912-13 record might be in error as so-called pickerel were often confused with pike…? The debate continues.

Management Update

In March of 2017 Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) issued a long-awaited “Wabamun Lake Fisheries Management Update”. The document lists the fisheries management objectives for the lake and the status of the fish populations based on a 2015 Fall Index Netting (FIN) study (PDF), where standardized multi-mesh nets are placed at random locations around the lake for about 24 hours. The number of fish of each species caught over that time is used to determine that species’ Fish Sustainability Index, where the risk to the sustainability of the population is rated as either Very Low, Low, Moderate, High or Very High Risk. The following are highlights from the update.

Walleye: The restoration continues. Although it was predicted back in 2012 that a harvestable population of walleye might be possible within three to five years (about now), the government now predicts a sustainable harvest will not be available until five to seven years from now. Then it is hoped the walleye now being produced in the lake will reach maturity in sufficient numbers to produce a harvestable surplus. For these reasons and a low FIN catch rate, walleye are classified as Very High Risk, and the no-harvest regulation continues.

Northern Pike: Trophy status for this species is confirmed for the lake. The status is based on the large pike being caught and a 2013 survey of anglers coming off the lake, in which more than 80% supported having opportunities to catch trophy pike. However, a low FIN catch rate places the pike at High Risk, and all pike caught must be released.

Lake Whitefish: Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this update is the status of the lake whitefish population. For much of the 20th century, Wabamun was one of the biggest commercial producers of whitefish in the province. In some years, commercial fishers caught from 200,000 to near 500,000 kg (440,000 to 1.1 million lbs.) of whitefish. It was also a popular sport fish, especially in the winter. However, since the oil spill of 2005, the FIN catch rate for whitefish has been on steady decline. Thus, the population remains in recovery and the no harvest regulation continues.

There was no mention of yellow perch in the update, but the FIN summary reports only one perch caught. So, the lake remains C&R for all species for the next few years. The status of the fishery will not be revisited until 2020 when another FIN study will be undertaken. In the meantime, the government intends to consult with a wider range of anglers about what they would like to see on the lake: continue all C&R, trophy pike, harvestable walleye, whitefish and perch…?


Meanwhile, anglers are catching many healthy walleye they must release. They are also catching some thin and seemingly unhealthy pike, and very few whitefish and yellow perch. As a result, many believe the walleye are negatively affecting the pike, whitefish and perch.

During a meeting with members of the Wabamun Watershed Management Council in April, government fisheries biologists Stephen Spencer and John Tchir stated that the low numbers and poor quality pike, whitefish and perch being reported are natural fluctuations of populations as a result of a new top predator (walleye) being introduced to the lake. Once the populations adjust to the new situation, numbers should improve.

Catch-and-Release Mortality: Tchir also mentioned that foul hooking or rough handling by anglers—damaging gills and internal organs—could cause the thin pike being observed. He mentioned there is a large “recycling” of fish in a C&R fishery close to a city. The chances of a fish surviving several handlings by anglers are reduced each time the fish is caught.

If that is the case and C&R is necessary to produce trophy pike, perhaps a trophy pike lake so close to a city is not possible or desirable…? Or perhaps there needs to be more strenuous rules regarding C&R fishing, such as banning the use of bait and treble hooks…? Fish tend to swallow baited hooks more readily than non-baited ones, and treble hooks are harder to dislodge from a fish’s mouth, increasing the chance of injury while handling.

And I would be remiss not to mention that a group of former government fisheries biologists believe that the growing population of walleye in Wabamun needs to have a limited harvest to control the population growth and allow the other species to better adapt to the new predator. Many also question why walleye were introduced in the first place, when the lake 1) was recovering from a catastrophic oil spill, 2) was being groomed as a trophy pike lake, and 3) was seeing its whitefish population plummeting? Perhaps walleye were not meant to be in Wabamun at this time…?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Springing for Draws and Budgets

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Spring is here and—along with the green grass, colourful flowers and warm rain—come our hopes for the coming fishing and hunting seasons. Planning is an important and often enjoyable part of any fishing or hunting trip and the annual draws for licences require people to start planning well ahead of their trips. As well, spring is the time for governments to table their budgets for the coming year. These documents can tell you much about what might be in store for future hunting and fishing opportunities.

If you are a veteran of the hunting draw process, you most likely know what you want and how to apply. But if you are new to the process or otherwise confused by it all, then you need to do some careful study of the draw booklet that will be out this month.

Two additional documents from Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) you will find helpful are the Draw Summary Report for 2016 and previous years and the Hunter Harvest Report for 2015 and earlier. The draw report will tell you the popularity of a specific licence in a specific Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) and your chance to be drawn for it, based on your current draw priority. The hunter harvest report will tell you your probability of bagging an animal in a specific WMU once you have a licence for it.

2017-04 Meredith-DrawHarvestReports

The Hunter Harvest and Draw Reports from previous years provide some valuable information.

Although both reports provide important information that helps you make your choices, such information should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt.” The Draw Summary Reports provide accurate information about the previous years’ draws. All the data comes from the draw process itself, so accuracy for the specific year is not an issue. However, there are two “wild card” variables that should be considered when using that information to make a decision about what will happen this year. The first one is the number of licences allotted for a particular species in a WMU. AEP can change that number from one year to the next, depending upon the management goals for that species in that WMU and what they’ve learned from population surveys and other issues.

The second variable is the number of hunters applying for that licence in the WMU. One can assume the number will be relatively the same from year to year but there is no guarantee it will. Hunters change WMUs for a variety of reasons and it’s difficult to predict how many will apply for a specific WMU. So, the fact that a licence got drawn with a certain priority one year does not guarantee it will be drawn for that priority the following year.

The Hunter Harvest Report is a bit less reliable than the draw report because it’s dependent upon hunters voluntarily reporting their success or lack there of. The report assumes hunters will be honest, and that’s probably a fair assumption for the most part. However, I’m sure there are many who either don’t bother to make a report or who have a problem recording they were not successful. Ego is a funny thing, especially with regard to hunter success. We don’t like to admit we didn’t fill a tag, even if we’re just ‘talking’ to a computer program.

Another issue is a hunter will sometimes report success when it wasn’t he or she who shot the animal but someone else in the hunting party who also reports the success, double counting that piece of information. All of the above skews the data, and so the “grain of salt” rule should apply.

The draws are an important part of getting a licence in the coming hunting seasons, but one should remember there are many general (“over-the-counter”) licences available. So if you do not get drawn, there are still opportunities. The question is how long will those opportunities last?

Provincial Budget
Spring is also a time for governments to table their budgets for the coming fiscal year and Alberta is no exception. This is the NDP government’s second budget and there is much controversy about the planned deficit and continued spending. I’m not a fan of spending more than you earn but I also know the government provides crucial services that require sustained funding. So, I can understand both sides of the argument, and am glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

However, it always amazes me how some people complain about government over spending while at the same time complaining about their pet projects not getting enough tax payer money. Such could be argued for the March 21st Alberta Fish and Game Association news release with regard to the Alberta budget and the money to be spent on fish and wildlife. The release correctly states the Alberta Government will spend $44 million on fish and wildlife in the next fiscal year, or 0.08% of the government’s total expenses (or 4% of AEP’s total expenses). Yes, a small sum in the grand scheme of things, but what the news release did not mention was the budget for fish and wildlife in 2016-17 had been $24.5 million. So, in reality the government has almost doubled the budget for 2017-18.

Perhaps a better comparison would be to look at a budget from pervious years, perhaps when there was still a Fish and Wildlife Division. My last year working for the division was 2002. The Fish and Wildlife budget for that year was $40 million dollars or about $53 million in 2015 dollars (www.measuringworth.com). But one must remember that the latter budget included expenses for the Enforcement Branch of the division that was moved to Alberta Justice and Solicitor General in 2011. So, the $44 million budgeted for 2017-18 could be a significant increase indeed. However, “the devil is in the details.”

2017-04 Meredith-AEP-BudgetExpense_edited-1

The annual budget documents provide some general insight into what is to come.

According to the budget Fiscal Plan 2017-20, the $44 million for 2017-18 will be used “for fish and wildlife including support for provincial woodland caribou management and recovery and the containment and management of whirling disease detected in Alberta in August 2016.” Not a lot of detail. As in the 2016-17 budget, there is little mention of management for game species, except perhaps on the revenue side where fishing and hunting licence sales are expected to marginally increase. Perhaps the AFGA news release should have focused more on these issues.

And where was the AFGA when last year’s (2016-17) budget was released? That’s when hunters, anglers, conservationists, etc. should have complained about fish and wildlife’s low budget. But there was hardly a peep from any conservation organization, let alone the AFGA. Maybe the other (non-AFGA) groups were quietly lobbying behind the scenes to get more things done for biodiversity and threatened species that resulted in the increase in funding for those areas this year…?

And back in 2012, when the Fish and Wildlife Division was quietly dissolved, the AFGA likewise failed to publicly complain, despite the fact that it had been the main driver for the creation of the agency back in the early 20th century. Is the paradigm shift away from consumptive use of fish and wildlife the consequence of such failures? Perhaps, but it does appear the AFGA is a bit late to the table for discussing budgets and conservation. Maybe they will catch up this year…?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Inequity of “Balance”

Guest Blog: In Alberta we are slowly facing the reality that there are only so many resources to go around, most especially fish and wildlife resources. However, when it is pointed out that resource extraction must be controlled so that our natural heritage can be maintained, we are often told by the powers that be that all must be managed in a “balanced” way. Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) finds difficulty with that word and has written an essay (below) about how the word is used to justify the greed that strips our heritage away. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: Tracks and SpoorMyths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

The Inequity of Balance
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

My mother would give my older brother a chocolate bar, to be shared “equally” with me. He would break the bar in roughly half, then nibble off the extraneous edges so the halves were even. If too much was removed from one piece, the other one required attention, to achieve “balance”. Eventually we would each get the same amount, although he had a head start on the share. This is where I first perceived the inequity of balance.

In discussions about development and the environment, those on the side of development always make the case we need a “balanced” approach, meaning the environment has to give so they can get their share. I have flashbacks to my brother dividing up scarce chocolate bars when I hear this dubious reasoning.

If the expression, balance, meant an equitable, or proportional sharing of resources, landscapes or chocolate, it would be easier to swallow. The reality is most of our landscapes and a majority of our natural resources have already been developed, changed, or in some way lost. If we have already converted 80% of the natural world into some economic endeavor it seems a bit of a stretch to achieve balance as we carve up the remaining 20%. We are not weighing two equal things.

The word balance is a changeling, depending on who is using it. When the off highway vehicle community use the word what they say is, “Yes, the environment is important, but we must find a balance.” What they mean is, “we want to continue to drive off road with a minimum of restriction”. Loggers say it’s important to balance protection of old growth forest against forest renewal through clear-cutting. What they really mean is, “keep the annual allowable cut high for better economic return.” The oil patch says we need a balanced approach on controls of greenhouse gas emissions because the proposed actions would cost too much. In other words, “action on climate change is aspirational and breathing is optional.”

Without a starting point, a benchmark in time to measure from, trend analysis and a sense of thresholds and limits, balance is a meaningless term. Instead of giving us direction for resource management it sets the stage for continuing to divide up the spoils until the bits left are not worth fighting over. It avoids all that uncomfortable argument about resource depletion, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem failure and allows one to think the status quo can continue.

In planning we tend to ignore everything that happened prior to the plan and allocate resources based on what’s left. Institutional amnesia magically erases the existing development footprint allowing further division to be made, as we continually add to the imbalance of future development against protection. And, as the imbalance grows, we are further separated from the environment that sustains and provides for us.

Balance sounds appropriate, as any smooth-sounding word does, but it is a disingenuous term with much room for manipulation and misunderstanding. Balance is a word much used in public relations spin. The hidden meaning of balance seems to be excessive, unequal division and use of resources, not an equitable sharing, proportional use or restraint. Balance has to convey something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

When the word balance is used, look for imbalance instead. Instead of acts of self-restraint, “balancing” competing demands liberates us from the tough decisions of limits. Writer and conservationist Kevin van Tighem, obviously fed up with this word and how it is used has suggested a moratorium on its use.

Life balances itself on a precarious ledge; through our actions we can maintain it or propel it off the edge. In many cases, to restore ecosystem function and lost or declining biodiversity a drastic re-balance is necessary. That means rolling back the tide of development in a fine adjustment between giving and taking. Imagine the thorns and thistles of local resistance and business opposition to that idea of balance.

So, how much is enough? Ecologists, like the world–renowned E. O. Wilson, have long called for “Nature needs half”. The rationale is we need to protect and maintain half of the landscape to maintain ecosystem functions, just to allow us to survive. Of course, much of the world’s biodiversity would ride our coattails on this one.

To this I suggest we use the term balance as you might for your bank account. Too many withdrawals, too many expenses and not enough income means we are going broke. Calculations from the WorldWatch Institute indicate the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes. Yet, the average person on earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. A report prepared by 1360 scientists for the World Bank warns that about two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure. Dr. Bill Rees calculates we in the western world are using the equivalent of something like two and half earths to meet our demands.

One might think we have failed to balance our ecological cheque books. It is ironic that those most obsessed with the idea government needs to eliminate deficit spending in the economy continue to promote it in the environment.

Victor Hugo, the famous 19th century writer, remarked that, “To put everything in balance is good, to put everything in harmony is better.”  Harmony implies restraint, stewardship and sustainability. To that end we have to decide between what we want and what we need; a gulf exists between these two points, in part due to the blind use of the word balance. We can fall into a deadly trap of thinking balance implies we need not concern ourselves with limits. The implication is we can carry on this ecological Ponzi scheme forever.

In the end it is the recognition we can’t have it all, only a little. If we’ve taken too much, some needs to be given back. Balance that against the prevailing use of the term “balance”.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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A Strategy for Conservation

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

One of the issues that stood out for me during the recent controversy over the new Castle parks in southwest Alberta is the lack of an overall strategic plan for the conservation of our Eastern Slopes, not just the Castle River watershed. Such a plan would protect all headwaters and critical habitats, as well as provide designated trails for Off-Highway Vehicles that do not conflict with conservation goals. As pointed out by many, the banning of OHVs in the Castle parks will just push OHV users into other areas, some of which are headwaters regions, such as those found in the Oldman, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan River watersheds. Are not these headwaters just as important as those of the Castle?

2009-10 Meredith-Keith-RiverCrossing

We need a conservation strategy to protect our wild waters.

As I was writing this column, the Alberta Government on March 1 announced that it would extend the deadline from March 20 to April 19 to comment and take a survey about the draft Castle parks management plan. As well, the consultation is being expanded to include “wider conservation and land use issues in the southern Eastern Slopes, Castle parks and surrounding areas, including linear disturbances, off-highway vehicle use and trail planning.” The government is scheduling public information sessions “in the coming months.” Although OHVs will not be allowed in the parks, there will be designated OHV trails and facilities created outside the parks. So it looks like the government is responding to concerns expressed through their survey and other feedback and is indeed looking beyond the new parks. But are they looking far enough?

The creation of the Castle parks came about as a result of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that was developed under the Land Use Framework (LUF). The LUF has a checkered history. Announced in 2008 by then Minister Ted Morton, the LUF was to provide the overall land use plans that would guide Alberta into a sustainable future, balancing the needs of an ever-growing human population with the resources available.

Initially the plans were supposed to be in place by 2012, an ambitious goal. Sure enough, the goal did not even come close to being met. Out of the seven proposed regional plans, only two (Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan) have been completed. Of the other five, only the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (started in 2014) is in process, although the pace has been frustratingly slow if not stagnated. Change of government, budget cuts and the complexity of the process have taken their toll. But the need is still there, especially in our headwater regions where the quality of our drinking water is at stake, as well as critical habitats for game species and endangered wildlife, and quality recreational experiences in truly wild places. Perhaps it’s time for the government to show the leadership it displayed with the Castle parks, and develop and implement a strategic plan for the Eastern Slopes north of the Castle parks and incorporate that plan into the coming regional plans.

2010-09 Meredith-Keith-Cutline

Walking and listening is the essence of good hunting.

Non-mechanized Anglers and Hunters
Another issue that raised its head as a result of the Castle parks announcement was the lack of representation non-mechanized hunters and anglers have on certain conservation matters. Like many, I thought the Alberta Fish and Game Association would be in favor of the new parks because they would provide the protection these areas need to ensure viable fish and game populations. However, in a February 16 news release the AFGA came out squarely in favor of OHV use in the parks. The release failed to mention any of the positive things the parks would clearly do for fish and wildlife conservation, including maintaining quality hunting and fishing opportunities. This came from a conservation organization that bans the use of OHVs or any other motorized vehicle on its own Wildlife Trust Fund properties, set aside to preserve wildlife habitat.

Now, I’ve supported the AFGA for a long time and have done work for them and my local club for many years. My friend and colleague Duane Radford and I wrote and edited the book, Conservation Pride and Passion (2008), the 100-year history of the organization, in which we worked with AFGA members from across the province. As well, I realize anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers are a diverse group, and representing all views on all issues is difficult if not impossible. However, I do feel the AFGA dropped the ball on this one. Apparently, so did many others as evidenced by the e-mail messages I received when the news release was distributed.

Many people know of my association with the AFGA and wanted an explanation about the group’s position on the parks I could not provide, except to say I was equally shocked. When I posted my shock on Facebook, the reaction was instant and likewise negative to the AFGA’s position. To be fair, some people did support the group’s position but they were clearly the minority. Several of those shocked by the AFGA were AFGA members, some threatening to withdraw their memberships.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
bha-logoA disagreement over one issue should not make or break a membership, but AFGA’s stand does cause one to wonder where his or her views on certain issues might be better represented. During my research for my previous column on the Castle parks, I investigated the various conservation organizations in Montana, seeking to understand the strong and cooperative conservation ethic there. One that popped up as most interesting to me was the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

BHA represents people who appreciate hunting and fishing on foot in truly wild places, and want to see these areas protected not only for the quality recreation opportunities they provide but also because they provide core fish and wildlife habitat that sustains many fish and game populations elsewhere. They are not against OHVs—many members use them to get to trail heads leading into non-motorized backcountry—but feel they should be left to areas that can sustain their wear-and-tear.

The organization got its start in 2004 in Oregon when a group of like minded individuals, upset with how the United State’s wild places were being managed, got together to do something about it. They decided to form an organization that would represent their views to governments and work with other organizations to conserve wild lands.

Over the last 13 years, their membership has grown to thousands. They have chapters in 24 states and one Canadian province—British Columbia.

I didn’t think much more about this group until a person who contacted me about the AFGA news release suggested I join BHA because it was trying to form a chapter in Alberta and he felt such an organization was needed here. It turned out BHA members in Alberta were organizing meetings in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge to see if enough people were interested in forming a chapter. I attended the meeting in Edmonton and was pleased with the turnout, including many young men and women. The discussion was good and did include the Castle parks, the catalyst that caused many to attend.

Although the BHA is based in Montana, once a chapter is formed all dues and donations collected remain with that chapter to do local projects. If you want to continue to have hunting and fishing opportunities in truly wild lands, check this group out.

Note: The Alberta BHA Chapter is now up and running. For more information go to the chapter’s Facebook page or its page on the BHA website.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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